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Rutgers Position Review: Special Teams Struggles

Oh, How the Mighty Have Fallen

Rutgers v South Florida Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

When Coach Chris Ash took over this spring, he cleaned house of the former coaching staff and brought in his own friends and colleagues. Former Ohio State Quality Control Coach, Vince Okruch was brought in to lead special teams. Okruch had spent the past two seasons at Ohio State working with the kickers and defense and brought over 35 years of coaching experience. After having shown great success in his previous roles, it was time for him to prove his worth with a team of walk-on specialists.

According to his stats, Rutgers kicker David Bonagura has a PCT of 71.4% or 10/14 field goals made. While the percentage is actually in line with legendary Scarlet Knights kicker Jeremy Ito, what’s telling is the number and range of these attempts. Only 14 field goals were attempted by the Scarlet Knights in all 12 games. While a lack of offensive production obviously comes into play here, there were several instances where Ash chose to punt on fourth down while conceivably in field goal range. Let’s break down Bonagura’s PCT a bit further.

When the field goal attempt is within 20-29 yards, he has converted on every try. At 30-39 yards, his completion percentage falls to 80%. Once the yardage moves into the 40-49 yard range, Bonagura has made just 1 out of 4 attempts. No attempts have been made at 50 yards or longer. With a career long of 41 yards, and missed attempts at 33 and 40 yards, there isn’t a question does not have the range needed to consistently put points on the board. Compare that with the aforementioned Ito, who set a school record with 80 field goals, and a career long of 53 yards to clinch a bowl win. He is still 8th in the country for field goals made, and had a 50% completion percentage for attempts of 50+ yards.

While Ito was a 3-star recruit, Bonagura is a R-JR walk-on who prior to this season had not kicked a field goal since his high school football championship. With former kicker Kyle Federico and kickoff specialist Chris Gough graduating last year, Bonagura was the lone survivor during spring training camp. While former head coach Kyle Flood had originally recruited 3-star kicker Alex Barbir as part of his 2016 recruiting class, Barbir decommitted soon after Flood was fired. While Ash did fill this position with preferred walk-on Jared Smolar, Bonagura earned the job as the no.1 kicker.

As previously reported, starting field position has also plagued Rutgers against B1G competition. Since this is an issue on both sides of the ball, in my opinion, there are two factors to which it can be attributed: average punt yardage and kickoff returns. Similar to Bonagura, Cintron is walk-on whose competition in 5th-year senior Tim Gleeson was lessened due to Gleeson’s back injury last season. To be fair to Cintron, due to the lack of offensive production, he has set a B1G record with 95 punt attempts in 14 games. I imagine having to punt every three minutes has to be tiring, which shows in his average of 37.9 yards per punt. With just three punt attempts in 2015, he averaged 53 yards per punt with a booming 57-yard punt on his first attempt. Nevertheless, if a powerhouse like Michigan or Ohio State only has to cover an average of 50 yards per series, it’s not hard to see why best case scenario they come out with a field goal.

Kick and punt return issues can also be attributed to a lack of depth. When Janarion Grant got hurt, I prayed most importantly that he was not seriously injured, and knew what it would mean if he was. I refused to accept the news until Ash confirmed it in his Monday presser. Not only did Coach Ash and Coach Mehringer rely on him heavily in their offensive scheme, but well, he was the star of special teams under former Coach Flood. In my opinion, his 3-star rating during recruiting heavily underestimated his skills.

Anyone watching the 2013 season opener against Fresno State when Grant, in his first collegiate touch, returned the kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown knew this kid was going to be special. If Rutgers was behind on the scoreboard, there was always the hope that Grant would take it to the house on a kick return. He and his teammate, special teams Co-MVP and punter, Nick Marsh had us covered on both sides of the punt. For those who may not remember, Marsh was a highly touted grad transfer from Utah who won the Chris Sailer Kicker National Punting Championship while still in high school. Marsh was consistent and had a long of 62 yards. Their replacements, while hard workers, do not have the same level of talent and dependability as their predecessors.

With Grant was out, R-FR Jawuan Harris was deemed the best option at kick return. While it is clear he has talent, he is a dual sports athlete with not only limited experience but practice time. He missed the first spring training camp due to his baseball responsibilities. When a R-FR is your best alternative, lack of depth on the roster is evident. While he has the speed, he has not yet developed the stealthiness and unpredictability of Grant. Being named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, in part due to his versatility, showcases his potential. If Rutgers fans get their wish, and Grant comes back alongside Harris next year, we may have the depth we need in this area.

Outside of the kicking and return game, Rutgers will need to get a lot better at minimizing the big plays. It is no longer acceptable for the return coverage to miss a key tackle due to once again failing to wrap up the returner. This type of sloppy coverage was constant, and it consistently forced the Scarlet Knights to come back from behind to attempt a win. Maybe for a stronger team, forging the gap is not such a major detriment. Unfortunately, Rutgers is not currently a strong team, especially by Big 10 standards. A missed first tackle on the punt return on Maryland’s second series allowed Teldrick Morgan to go for an 87-yard field goal. We are not in the position to hand over opportunities to better teams, and Rutgers will need to continue to work on their tackling and coverage in the off-season.

Indiana v Rutgers
Celebrating a special teams win
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

There was a brief moment during the Indiana game where I saw the possible return of the impressive special teams play of yore. David Bonagura made both of his field goal attempts, albeit only for 20 and 32 yards. Jawuan Harris forced a fumble on the kickoff return. Sebastian Joseph and Isaiah Wharton both blocked field goals keeping up the Rutgers tradition of setting records on special teams. With those deflections, Rutgers has set a record of 47 blocked kicks, including 19 field goals, since 2009. Not since the 2012 Army game has special teams blocked two field goals in one game. As usual, we were not able to convert these big plays into a win, which has been the issue all season. However, these are all players who will conceivably be returning next year, so let’s hope they can continue to improve and put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Coach Ash has already announced he will be keeping his full coaching staff, so let’s hope that we can recruit at the specialist positions, and Okruch has some time to re-evaluate and make improvements in the off-season.

I’m rooting for you special teams, but the assessment is bleak.

Special Teams Grade: D+